A Night Without Stars

Yes, it’s something new. There’s been some thick books read around here lately.

This one came from Amazon Vine.

Frankly, the review was banged out quickly. There’s some additional thoughts and observations with spoilers at the end.

Review: A Night Without Stars, Peter F. Hamilton, 2016.night-without-stars

It’s a night without stars on the planet Bienvenido because it’s far from the rest of galaxy, so far that the only sun in the sky is the one its planets revolve around.

It’s a solar system inhabited by members of the races doomed unsuitable for communion with the aliens that created the Void, that vast bubble of altered timeflow and physics busted up by industrialist Nigel Sheldon at the end of The Abyss Beyond Dreams.

Don’t worry if you’ve forgotten all you’ve read in Hamilton’s other Commonwealth novels or never read any at all.

Hamilton quickly brings up you to speed. In the first 41 pages, we get reacquainted with dictator Slvasta, obsessed with ridding Bienvenido of the Faller menace — nasty, irredeemable aliens who digest and mimic (except for the blue blood) a planet’s lifeforms. Except Bienvenido has discovered it’s sharing the solar system with an even nastier alien menace, the Prime from Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained. Laura Brandt, from Abyss, dies yet again.

And we’re off to the usual compelling Hamilton mix of detectives, spies, revolutionaries, fanatics, astronauts, politicians, nasty aliens and naïve young people thrown in the mix. Masks will drop, factions will plot, alliances will melt away and reform. (The sex in this one is actually fairly low key and short.)

Our two main characters are a secret policeman and an astronaut, both who discover that the official story about the Faller menace is not right. Things are far worse than thought.

Most of the characters are new, but some old ones show up including, in the first chapter, the universe’s most competent human, Paula Myo.

The novel raises to the typical Hamilton crescendo of quick cuts between different groups trying to stave off global disaster.

The last 40 pages may be a bit rushed and the final chapter a bit overstuffed, but Hamilton wraps up his themes and plots.

Further Thoughts and Observations (With Spoilers)

Peter F. Hamilton, in the Commonwealth Saga, is sort of recapitulating the history of the late 19th and early 20th century. Pandora’s Star had a Belle Epoque feel with its interplanetary trains and violent anarchists. The Abyss Beyond Dreams had a feel of the Russian Revolution about it. The hero of that novel, Slavasta, becomes a Stalin like figure who eventually sends his own wife to the planet’s equivalent of the salt mines.

Most of this novel takes place 257 years after “Mother Laura” gives herself saving Bienvenido, and the place has the feel of 1950s and 1960s Communist Russia. The cars are internal combustion. The state is involved in most every business. One of heroes, Chaing, is a captain in the People’s Security Regiment, basically Bienvenido’s KGB. The names have a Slavic flavor. Its space program explicitly uses Soyuz technology. Microchips don’t exist. Something like hippies and rock music are coming into existence.

Of course, there are no countries on Bienvenido. And Bienvenido really does face a global conspiracy and internal menace with the Fallers which Chaing and others work to detect and destroy.

Bienvenido also has an internal problem with its “Eliter” population, those who have received biological modifications from the Commonwealth civilization the Void separated it from for thousands of years. Eliters are smarter and more physically fit than the normal population. They can also pass those traits on to their descendants. (In fact, Chaing and Ry Ervine, two of our heroes, have Eliter traits though keep it secret to get their jobs.) Eliters, because of this competitive advantage, are under severe restrictions.

Now, depending on your historical, anthropological, or contemporary interests, you can see this as a metaphor for race, racial differences in IQ, anti-Semitism, race discrimination, or class struggle.

That’s not the theme of Hamilton that most interests me.

It’s the use of power and, specifically, the use of power to maintain communities. And, to get very precise, power to keep other communities with other notions from changing your way of life in undesired ways.

There are plenty of examples of this in our history and now.

The most extreme form is invasion and war. But it shows up in modern political debates on globalization. Why should my people have to economically adapt because of the economic and physical actions of others? And, if we adapt, how much do we have to adapt? Will it be enough to secure my life and needed resources.

It’s been the question faced by many people too. Do you take the package of “Dutch” modernization if you’re in Meiji-era Japan? Do I take up the plow if I’m a Plains Indian in the 1800s?

In modern, liberal societies it’s often a conflict phrased in terms of “rights”. Do my neighbors have the right to determine how I’ll take care of my lawn? Does an Indian reservation have the right to not have liquor sold near its borders?

Sometimes the questions are phrased in aesthetic terms. No, you are not allowed to have golden arches at your McDonalds restaurant because we like green arches instead.

Sometimes the question is phrased in terms of common rights or environmentalism.

And we’re not even talking about more complicated matters of religion, sex, and economics.

Now conflict settles these things and the usual tools are, to use to words of Warren Zevon, “lawyers, guns, and money”.

Science fiction has a solution to this: give each group, each their own culture their own world.

Each culture, however retrograde, can have their own planet. This shows up in Poul Anderson’s The Boat of a Million Years.

Numerous works from 1970s on proposed L-5 colonies (not used much now) or hollowed out asteroids.

Dan Simmon’s Black Hills got in on the act with the middle of North America restored in the future to a world like that of the Plains Indian.

Now as non-metaphorical solutions these all have problems: certain types of societies are needed to provide the technological and social capital to realize these visions.

Clashing cultures, often one inferior technologically, is a theme Hamilton has used in many of his works.

Paula Myo, his most popular character, comes from Huxley’s Haven, a world peopled by those genetically engineered to be satisfied in set roles in a static society. The Commonwealth decides the society is immoral and removes her.

In his Commonwealth books, “radical Highers” seek to impose a particular type of transhumanism on the merely “advanced” people of the Commonwealth. The Void wants to subsume entire races to pursue its vision. The government of Bienvenido resents being contacted by the Commonwealth. It wants to pursue its own vision of social development.

(I suspect I could cite more examples in Hamilton’s work — but that’s a lot of pages, and I’ve got other stuff going on.)

The factions in the Commonwealth, sometimes rightly, believe that it is not just aggression by other cultures and races that threatens their way of life. It is sometimes the mere existence of those other races and cultures.

The Commonwealth series is essentially Utopia threatened in various ways — usually by aliens but sometimes internal dissent — and being saved by Paula Myo and her allies.

What makes this novel feel a bit stuffed at the end, a bit implausible despite knotting off all the plot, character, and thematic threads, is not just that everything works out for Bienvenido. It’s not the superscience/magic of the Commonwealth. It’s the notion that the less advanced humans rescued from the Void will be slowly be allowed to assimilate — to whatever degree they chose and whatever rate — into Commonwealth culture.

It’s a process that really is enabled by the material wealth and technology of the Commonwealth. It’s not an option available to us in the foreseeable future. We’re not left with the feeling we’ve seen a real-world, practical way out of this old dilemma on our crowded world nor a metaphorical one, just wish fulfillment.

And, speaking of the novel’s end, I did think I needed a concordance. Oscar Monroe? Timothy Baker? Yeah, the names sound familiar, but it’s late and I’m not looking them up now.

 

More fantastic fiction is indexed by title and author/editor.

 

 

 

 

 

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